KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A Knoxville family and loved ones are heartbroken after the loss of a much-beloved woman.
Toni Watts, 67, drowned Tuesday while on vacation in Oak Island, N.C.
“Even though I talked to her every single day, I still didn’t know how much she did,” Toni’s daughter Joy Chadwick said.
Watts’ family remains strong while processing the death of the wife, mother, and grandmother.
“She died in that water,” Chadwick said. “And I know when God calls you home it’s time to go.”
From serving at her church to tutoring kids in need, Toni will always be remembered for her huge heart.
“Devoted to the Lord,” North Knoxville Baptist Pastor Joe Emmert said. “She was somebody that served this church faithfully. She was the one, as a pastor you got people that come we say ‘sit and soak.’ She wasn’t like that. She was somebody that would come and say ‘what can I do?'”
“They’ve done extensive renovations here in the church and all the stories I’ve heard lately, eye-opening to an extent. I could totally see it. Her pulling up carpet,” Chadwick said.
Toni retired a few years ago as a healthcare provider and always went the extra mile. She even cared for a close friend at her own home before the friend passed away.
Chadwick said, “It was not typical for her to go in and have her task sheet, if you will, from the company. ‘This is what you need to accomplish on your shift today.’ It was if they needed meals prepped for the next however long, she would do that. She would do their laundry, just all of it.”
Toni died Tuesday evening. The Oak Island North Carolina Water Rescue Squad reports she was the third person in their area to drown in the last month due to rip currents. Toni’s husband spotted her first floating face down in the ocean.
“Dad called that afternoon and I answered,” Chadwick said. “Dad doesn’t usually call. We talk all the time, but I thought it was odd he was calling. I honestly thought mom has his phone for some reason but he said, ‘I feel like I have bad news for you.’ And I said what’s going on. And he said, ‘I think mom may have drowned.'”
Beach goers were able to bring Toni out of the water. A doctor and nurse who were at the beach performed CPR on Toni before first responders arrived but their efforts were unsuccessful.
As Toni’s family mourns their loss, they are questioning the function of the beach warning flag system.
Chadwick said, “Now that I know that this exists, that’s not our experience with what we saw at the beach. And we went to multiple areas of access while were there.”
“It was a series of choices and unfortunate circumstances and we think just a lack of information just on the warning system that they have in place there contributed to it,” Emmert said.
The Water Rescue Squad chief reports there are warning flags outside their station in Oak Island where a live camera is and people can access it online but there aren’t any flags at the beach access points.
“Last year we put placards on every single one of the access points that has a QR code that you scan with your phone and it will tell you the most current rip current is at that time,” Chief Pete Grendzke said. “The National Weather service updates that about every 15 to 20 minutes.”
The Chief added warning flag system miscommunication is an issue all over the world and rip currents were moderate at the time of Toni’s death.
Toni’s daughter Joy says she believes if her mom knew more about the alerts, her death could’ve been prevented.
Toni and her family were staying at a home owned by Pastor Emmert’s family. He says it’s difficult battling feelings of guilt.
Wednesday, June 22, Toni’s family will be celebrating her life at North Knoxville Baptist (217 W Oldham Avenue, Knoxville, TN 37917). From 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., they will receive friends with a service to follow. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to North Knoxville Baptist.